The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

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The Torch Exclusive: Introducing Rev. Brian J. Shanley

Photo Courtesy/ Providence College

Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., was announced president-elect of St. John’s University on Tuesday morning and is expected to assume the role at the beginning of the spring semester, in February 2021. Shanley comes to St. John’s after a 15-year term at Providence College in Rhode Island, where he led the college in national rankings, diversified the student body, increased the number of faculty and improved campus facilities and student services. 

Shortly after the announcement of his presidency, the Torch sat down with Shanley over Webex to talk about what St. John’s students should expect from his presidency, his tenure at Providence College and his approach to leadership in this unprecedented time. 

Shanley is of the Dominican order, an order of the Catholic church created by Saint Dominic in the early thirteenth century in France. He is the first Dominican president elected to lead St. John’s University, and will succeed President Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw, the first layperson to hold the role in the history of the University.

“This is not a job, this is my vocation. This is what God wants me to do,” Shanley said of his new role. “All along the way, I have felt like God was leading me here, and that I’m supposed to be at St. John’s – and I feel like it’s a really good fit for me”


From Rhode Island to the World’s Borough

A lifelong Rhode Island native, Shanley attended Providence College for his undergraduate education since it was close to home and both of his parents had ties to the college. His mother was a librarian on campus and his father also attended the college for his undergraduate education, so Shanley attended the college with free tuition. He joined the Dominican order in 1980 following his graduation, and came back to the college for his first assignment as priest. After receiving his P.h.D. from the University of Toronto, Shanley returned again to Providence in 2005, and was elected president, serving three consecutive terms.

Shanley, an avid New York Times reader and Big East fanatic, has visited New York City before, including this month to tour campus – but living in Queens will be a first for him.

“Queens is unknown territory to me, but I’m excited because everybody says it is the most diverse and interesting place in New York,” Shanley said. 

“I’ve been at the Big East Tournament every year that I’ve been the President [at Providence], I love going,” he said of his love for the Big East. “And there’s nothing like basketball in Madison Square Garden.” This year however, he’ll be rooting for the Red Storm – but not necessarily against Providence, he said. 

Though a member of the Dominican Order, Shanley said in an email to the St. John’s community that he has long “admired” the Vincentian mission at St. John’s. He told the Torch that he particularly liked the University’s fidelity to its founding mission of being a school of opportunity. 

“When I stepped down from PC I spent a lot of the summer trying to discern, you know, ‘What did God want for me?’” he said.  “At the end of the day, I’m a priest, and this is about my vocation and about what God asks of me.” 

Shanley stepped down after his provincial, the Dominican Province of St. Joseph, denied Providence College’s Board of Trustees recommendation that he serve a fourth term as president.

Shanley then wrestled with the decision to either return as a philosophy professor or take on an administrative role at a Catholic school. Eventually, he decided he’d “like to do the president thing again.” 

“It’s going to stretch me and challenge me in ways that I haven’t at Providence College.” 


Communication: Visibility and Availability to Students

Shanley emphasizes that communication is one of the most necessary aspects of a successful administration, and he draws upon his Dominican values to foster this communication.

“I know that’s something that St. John’s wants … better communication and more transparency,” Shanley said. “See, I think that’s right up my alley. And that’s right up the Dominican charism.”

“I need regular contact with students. Because otherwise you’ll always get filtered views of things,” he continued.

While at Providence, Shanley met with the President of Student Congress, their equivalent to our Student Government Inc. (SGi), for an hour every month to directly discuss student concerns. Each semester, he would go in front of the Student Congress, doing what he called the “British Prime Minister thing,” standing and taking questions directly.  He plans to do something similar at SJU.

Shanley said he went to the Providence campus gym nearly every day and spoke to students directly. He fears the inability to walk campus and “just talk to people” due to the pandemic will hinder his direct style of communication with students, but plans to find other ways to navigate the challenges that it presents. 

“I think everybody finds it a little bit enervating, because it takes a lot out of you, and you miss the human contact,” he said of the new ways we all communicate through Zoom and video calls. “So I ought to figure out a communication strategy — I’ve always tried to be visible and available.”

Shanley says he understands students’ frustrations and their desire to see tangible change at the administrative level after a turbulent year. He cites a 2015 incident at Providence College where students occupied his office and he was met with a list of demands for him to implement in order to create “equality, equity, and change” in the face of racial tensions on their campus. Reminiscent of a 2018 incident of a similar nature at St. John’s, Shanley says he hopes to be able to work with the student body and negotiate solutions. 

I hope it doesn’t get to demands because demands to me means it’s failed. Instead, if there’s an ongoing dialogue, then I think students feel like they’re being listened to, and that they’re being respected, and their concerns are taken seriously,” he said.


COVID-19: Facing the Challenges of the Pandemic

No matter what the spring semester brings, it will not be a return to normalcy that many students and staff are hoping for. Shanley says he recognizes this and the strain that uncertainty puts on many students and faculty.

“There are all kinds of challenges on the mental health front that we don’t hear,” Shanley said. “You know, [Providence’s] success at remote learning [has] been mixed. A lot of students are really turned off by remote learning.” 

As someone who thrives on face-to-face contact himself, Shanley empathizes with the struggles of students learning online. However, he does not have a thorough plan of how to move forward, because he has yet to get the opinion of SJU students. 

“They desperately don’t want to go home,” he said of the Providence students. “They want to stay on campus. And if you give them sensible guidelines that don’t make them live like prisoners or monks, then they have more or less followed what we’ve asked them to do, we pretty much got through what we thought we would get through.” 

Shanley is “assuming the same goodwill of the St. John’s students.” He said he also made it clear to Providence faculty that wearing a mask is not optional, and the same will go for SJU’s campuses. 

Students at Providence were tested on a weekly basis, and the campus only saw one outbreak during the fall semester, which caused them to close two weeks early this month. Shanley pointed out that such a measure would not be as economically possible due to the substantially larger student population at SJU.

A worry of the University heading forward is retention and recruitment, as this year has shown a lower influx of new students than the University desired. One of Shanley’s jobs as president is to increase enrollment, while also keeping students from transferring.

Providence boasted a “91 or 92%” freshman retention rate, according to Shanley, while St. John’s hovers around “84 and 85%” — a percentage Shanley would love to see increase. “Frankly, it’s the most concerning thing for me, making sure this year that we recruit a class that is going to be right for the University.”


A Different Demographic 

At a glance, there is a substantial difference between St. John’s and Providence College in terms of diversity, both religiously and ethnically.

“I don’t know a Catholic school that doesn’t have a diverse student population,” Shanley said. “You have to figure out well, how do you help people grow in their faith? Whatever your faith is, I want to help you grow in it. I want us to be a community where the diversity of people’s religious belief is celebrated.” 

Shanley recognizes that much of the University does not belong to the Catholic faith and that many who do are on a spectrum of personal devotion. He hopes that during his tenure he can help those students who only “check off the boxes ‘Catholic’” be able to grow in their faith, should they so desire it.

In the fall of 2019, just 18% of students at Providence were students of color in comparison to SJU’s 44%

Shanley is, however, credited with diversifying the faculty at Providence, which he says he did by making it an active goal in recruitment to find faculty from different backgrounds. He has noticed a lack of such diversity at St. John’s, despite nearly half of students being non-white. 

“St. John’s has an extraordinarily diverse student body,” he said. “But the faculty and the staff aren’t the same as the student body, we need to figure out strategies to diversify the faculty and the staff for one thing.”

“I think there’s a lot to do, but it’s going to begin with listening, not coming in from the outside and telling you, ‘I know how you can fix things there,’” Shanley said. “It’s going to be, ‘how do we become the community that we want to be at St. John’s?’”

Despite his enthusiasm for inclusion, rumors circulated throughout St. John’s-affiliated social media sites of an Islamaphobic book titled “Manhattan Massacre,” which was believed by some to be written by Shanley. 

Shanley – who says he has never Googled himself – did not write the book, nor has he encountered this mix-up before. 

“I never even knew that book existed. And I obviously did not write it. So it’s kind of distressing to know there’s a Brian James Shanley out there,” Shanley said. “But no, it’s not me.”

Shanley will begin his role on Feb. 1 of next year, and he told the Torch he’s looking forward to the move, although he’ll have to adjust to the noise and find a new Chinese martial arts teacher in the city. 

“I’m looking forward to helping St. John’s become the best version of itself that it could possibly be.”


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About the Contributors
Alicia Venter
Alicia Venter, Editor-in-Chief
Alicia is a senior Journalism major with a minor in English. She joined the Torch during her freshman year as Assistant News Editor and later became News Editor. In her last year, she is now serving as the Editor-in-Chief. She is excited to expand the Torch’s online presence through the Torch’s newsletter and other digital platforms. She is a native Kentuckian and loves painting, blaring music too loud and strong coffee! You can reach Alicia at [email protected].
Dayra Santana
Dayra Santana, Editor-in-Chief
Dayra is a senior Communication Arts and Legal Studies major. She joined the Torch during her sophomore year as Assistant Features Editor and later became Features Editor and Managing Editor. In her last year, she is serving as the publication’s Editor-in-Chief and hopes to reach more people in the St. John’s community in new and creative ways, including the Torch newsletter and other digital platforms. Dayra loves to make playlists in her free time and favors Spotify over Apple Music! You can reach Dayra at [email protected].
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